A short history of BIEN

A short history of BIEN

The origins: an idea, a collective, a prize. In the Autumn of 1983, Paul-Marie Boulanger, Philippe Defeyt and Philippe Van Parijs, three young researchers attached to the departments of demography, economics and philosophy of the University of Louvain (Belgium) decided to set up a working group in order to explore the implications of an extremely simple, unconventional but attractive idea which Van Parijs had proposed to call, in a paper circulated in December 1982, “allocation universelle”. The group chose as a collective pseudonym Collectif Charles Fourier. Its main output was a special issue of the Brussels monthly La Revue nouvelle (April 1985). But along the way, it won a prize, with a provocative presentation of the idea and its putative consequences, in an essay competition on the future of work organised by the Brussels-based King Baudouin Foundation.

The first meeting. With the money it thus unexpectedly earned, the Collectif Charles Fourier decided to organise a meeting to which they would invite a number of people to whom the idea of an Unconditional Basic Income had, they gradually discovered, independently occurred. This meeting became the first international conference on Basic Income, convened by Philippe Van Parijs in the university town of Louvain-la-Neuve on 4-6 September 1986, with sixty participants individually invited. It turned out to be quite an extraordinary event, with many seemingly lonely fighters suddenly discovering a whole bunch of kin spirits. They included, among others, Gunnar Adler-Karlsson, Jan-Otto Andersson, Yoland Bresson, Paul de Beer, Alexander de Roo, Rosheen Callender, Nic Douben, Marie-Louise Duboin, Gérard Roland, Ian Gough, Pierre Jonckheere, Bill Jordan, Greetje Lubbi, Annie Miller, Edwin Morley-Fletcher, Claus Offe, Hermione Parker, Riccardo Petrella, David Purdy, Guy Standing, Robert van der Veen, Georg Vobruba and Tony Walter.

A network is born. At the final session of the conference, several participants expressed the wish that some more permanent association be created, with the task of publishing a regular newsletter and organising regular conferences. Guy Standing proposed calling this association Basic Income European Network, which gathered an easy consensus, since no one could beat the beauty of the corresponding acronym (BIEN, which means “good” in French and Spanish). Its purpose, later enshrined in its Statutes adopted in 1988, was formulated as follows: “BIEN aims to serve as a link between individuals and groups interested in Basic Income, i.e. an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement, and to foster informed discussion on this topic throughout Europe”. Peter Ashby (National Council for Voluntaty organisations), Claus Offe (then at the University of Bremen) and Guy Standing (then at the International Labour Organisation) became BIEN’s first chairpersons. Walter Van Trier (then at the University of Antwerp) became secretary, Alexander de Roo (then parliamentary assistant at the European Parliament) treasurer, and Philippe Van Parijs (University of Louvain) newsletter editor, subsequently combined with secretary. Ashby and Offe left as co-chairs in 1988 and were succeeded by Edwin Morley-Fletcher (1988-1998) and Ilona Ostner (1996-2004), jointly with Guy Standing (1986-2008).

Lifeline of the network: the newsletter. In the pre-internet era, the regular dispatching of a printed newsletter formed the very core of the existence of a network. From 1988 to July 2001, BIEN published a printed Newsletter that was sent to fee-paying members three times per year (36 issues). In order to facilitate the management of the subscriptions, the annual membership was replaced by a life membership formula in the Autumn of 1998, The emergence of electronic communication made it possible to intensify and widen the spreading of information. From January 2000 onwards, BIEN News flashes were sent several times per year to a large number of subscribers far beyond BIEN’s membership (138 issues between January 2000 and January 2020, when BIEN adopted a new style of Bulletin). In 1996, BIEN also inaugurated a website. Initially, it did little more than making newsletters and newsflashes available for downloading. It later grew rapidly to provide a wealth of information and resources on Basic Income and the Basic Income movement.

Congresses of growing scope. Starting with the founding conference, BIEN organized a congress every second year, with a growing and increasingly diverse set of participants:

  1. Louvain-la-Neuve, BE (UCLouvain, 4-6 September 1986, convenor: Philippe Van Parijs)
  2. Antwerp, BE (Universitaire Faculteiten St Ignatius, 22-24 September 1988, convenor: Walter Van Trier)
  3. Florence, IT (European University Institute, 19-20 September 1990, convenor: Edwin Morley-Fletcher)
  4. Paris, FR (Université de Paris-Val de Marne, 18-19 September 1992, convenors: Yoland Bresson & & Pierre Lavagne)
  5. London, UK (Goldsmith College, 8-10 September 1994, convenor: Richard Clements)
  6. Vienna, AT (United Nations Centre, 12-14 September 1996, convenors: Lieselotte Wohlgenannt, Michael Tepser & Bernd Marin)
  7. Amsterdam, NL (Universiteit van Amsterdam, 10-12 September 1998, convenors: Robert J. van der Veen, Loek Groot & Paul de Beer)
  8. Berlin, DE (Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin), 6-7 October 2000, convenor: Claus Offe)
  9. Geneva, CH (International Labour Office, 13-14 September 2002, convenor: Guy Standing)
  10. Barcelona, ES (Forum Universal de las Culturas, 19-20 September 2004, convenors: David Casassas & Jose Noguera)

Archive from the early days. Contributions to some of the congresses were published in a number of collective volumes:

  • Anne G. Miller ed. Proceedings of the First International Conference on Basic Income (Louvain-la-Neuve, September 1986). Antwerp: BIEN & London: BIRG, 1988.
  • Walter Van Trier ed. Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Basic Income. (Antwerp, September 1988). Antwerp: BIEN & London: BIRG, 1990
  • Philippe Van Parijs ed., Arguing For Basic Income. Ethical Foundations for a Radical Reform. London & New York: Verso, 1992.
  • Robert J. van der Veen & Loek Groot eds., Basic Income on the Agenda. Policy Options and Political Feasibility, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2000.
  • Guy Standing, ed., Promoting Income Security as a Right. Europe and North America, London: Anthem Press, 2004.

Along with a great many other books, papers and reports on Basic Income from before the internet era, the papers presented at BIEN’s first few congresses are kept in BIEN’s Archive at UCLouvain’s Hoover Chair of Economic and Social Ethics, 3 Place Montesquieu, 1348 Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium.

From a European to a worldwide network. By 2004, 20% of the online subscribers and 25% of BIEN’s life members were from outside Europe. Pressure therefore increased to turn BIEN from a European into a worldwide network. The development of internet communication and of low-cost air travel made this option more realistic. And in January 2004, President Lula signed into law Senator Eduardo Suplicy’s proposal for a “basic citizenship income” for all Brazilians. This finished convincing the sceptics who thought that an Unconditional basic income could only make sense in European countries with a developed welfare state. At the September 2004 congress in Barcelona, BIEN’s executive committee proposed to change the name of the network from “Basic Income European Network” to “Basic Income Earth Network”. This proposal was adopted by BIEN’s General Assembly on 20 September 2004.

Structuring the movement. The newly elected committee undertook to modify and expand the statutes (until then no more than a single page), a new version of which was approved by the General Assembly in 2008. Owing to the growth of the network, the size of the executive committee had to increase, with the managing of the website gaining in importance. The committee of the expanded network was successively co-chaired or chaired by Guy Standing and Eduardo Suplicy (2004-2008), Ingrid van Niekerk (2008-2014), Karl Widerquist (2008-2017), Louise Haagh (2014-2020) and Sarath Davala (2020-). An Advisory Board that includes all past committee members is chaired by Philippe Van Parijs (2004-). In May 2016, the position of general manager was created, the incumbent of which is not elected by the General Assembly but appointed by the Executive Committee. Malcolm Torry has held this position since its creation. In 2016, the network was officialized as an international non-profit organization (AISBL) under Belgian law and two years later turned into a charitable incorporated organization (CIO) under British law, with its official seat moved from Brussels to London, and the statutes amended accordingly.

From biennial to annual congresses. As a result of becoming a worldwide network, BIEN started recognizing national networks outside Europe as affiliates and decided in 2004 to start alternating non-European and European locations for the congress. In 2016, given the increasing popularity of the idea of basic income across the world, it decided to start organizing a congress every year instead of every second year. The Basic Income Earth Network met in the following places:

  1. Capetown, ZA (University of Capetown, 3-4 November 2006, convenor: Ingrid van Niekerk)
  2. Dublin, IE (University College, Dublin, 21-22 June 2008, convenors: Sean Healy & Brigid Reynold)
  3. Sao Paulo, BR (Universidade de São Paulo, 30 June-2 July 2010, convenors: Eduardo Suplicy & Fabio Waltenberg)
  4. Ottobrunn, DE (Wolf-Ferrari Haus, 14-16 September 2012, convenor: Dorothee Schulte-Basta)
  5. Montreal, CA (MacGill University, 27-29 June 2014, convenors: Jurgen De Wispelaere & Daniel Weinstock)
  6. Seoul, KR (Sogang University, 7-9 July 2016, convenor: Hyosang Ahn)
  7. Lisbon, PT (Lisbon School of Economics, 26-27 September 2017, convenor: Roberto Merrill)
  8. Tampere, FI (University of Tampere, 24-26 July 2018, convenor: Jurgen De Wispelaere)
  9. Hyderabad, IN (NALSAR University, 23-26 August 2019, convenor: Sarath Davala)

[20. Brisbane, AU (University of Queensland, 28-30 September 2020, convenors: Troy Henderson & Greg Marston): postponed to 2022 because of the covid19 pandemic]

21. Glasgow, UK (Online, 18-21 August 2021, convenor: Mike Danson)

Providing enthusiasm, imagination, mutual understanding and tenacity keep feeding the worldwide basic income movement, this is only the beginning of BIEN’s history.

Philippe Van Parijs

The Prehistory of Private Property: A video introduction to the new book by Karl Widerquist and Grant McCall

The Prehistory of Private Property: A video introduction to the new book by Karl Widerquist and Grant McCall

This short video introduces the new book, The Prehistory of Private Property, by Grant McCall and me. The book examines the origin and development of the private property rights system and the experiences of peoples who have lived in other systems to debunk three false claims commonly accepted by contemporary political theorists. These false claims are: (1) Inequality is natural and inevitable, or egalitarianism is unsustainable without a significant loss in freedom. (2) Capitalism is more consistent with negative freedom than any other conceivable economic system. (3) Private property is somehow “natural,” meaning that when free from interference people tend to appropriate and transfer property in ways that lead to a capitalist system with strong, individualistic, and unequal private property rights.

The book presents a great deal of anthropological and historical evidence that show that all three of these claims are false: (1) Many societies known to anthropology have maintained egalitarianism and freedom. (2) The least free people under capitalism are significantly less free than people in societies with common access to resources. (3) The first people to “appropriate” property tend to share resources; the elite private ownership system was forced on the world by the colonial and enclosure movements beginning only about 500 years or so ago and not fully complete yet.

The book is not primarily about Universal Basic Income (UBI), but it attacks many arguments used against UBI and other forms of redistribution. It also makes a brief case for UBI in the very last chapter, as the video explains.

As a bonus, early in the video, if you look closely, you can see Alexander de Roo eating breakfast in the background.

YouTube player

Thanks to Ali Mutlu Köylüoğlu for inviting me to give this talk and for recording and posting it.

-Karl Widerquist, Morehead City, North Carolina, June 17, 2020

The History of the Appropriation Story

The History of the Appropriation Story

            I’m posting chapters of my latest book project (The Prehistory of Private Property coauthored by Grant. S. McCall)
            This discussion paper is a draft of Chapter 2 of our forthcoming book, the Prehistory of Private Property. It traces the history of the appropriation story in property theory from John Locke to the present day. It shows that, although the story is not supposed to be literally true, it is meant illustrate important empirical claims in the natural rights justification of private property. The natural-rights-based argument for ethical limits on government powers to tax, regulate, and redistribute property has to stand on the empirical claim that collective appropriation of property, though possible, is historically implausible—a claim or a collection of claims we call “the appropriation hypothesis.”
            This hypothesis could be specified in at least three different ways. First, before governments or any other collective institutions appear, all or most resources are appropriated by individuals acting as individuals to established private property rights. Second, only individuals acting as individuals perform appropriative acts (i.e. neither individuals acting as monarchs nor groups intending to establish collective, public, or government-held property rights perform appropriative acts). Third, even if collectives perform appropriative acts, subsequent transfers of titles (in the absence of rights violations) are likely only to produce privatized property rights.
           This chapter sets up the following questions, which will be addressed in the chapters 3, 4, & 5: Can the natural-rights justification of private property do without the appropriation hypothesis? And if not, are these claims true?
Street Art From Wales -OpenDemocracy
The Prehistory of Private Property

The Prehistory of Private Property

My latest book project (coauthored by the anthropologist, Grant S. McCall) is called The Prehistory of Private Property. It book tells two parallel histories. It tells the story of how modern property theory became dependent on three misconceptions about the origin of the property rights system and the difference between societies with common and privatized resources, and how those misconceptions continue to have a negative effect on contemporary political thought and beliefs about our shared responsibility. The second story traces the origin and development of the private property system through history and prehistory to debunk those misconceptions.

The three claims at the center of this book are: 1. The normative principles of appropriation and voluntary transfer applied in the world we live in can only support a capitalist system with strong private property rights. 2. Capitalism is more consistent with negative freedom than any other conceivable economic system. 3. Inequality is natural and inevitable, or egalitarianism is unsustainable without a significant loss in freedom.

The book devotes a great deal of space to show how these misconceptions are embedded in many influential theories in political philosophy, because political philosophers are often unclear about the extent to which their theories rely on empirical claims. The clarity problem is nearly as important as the dubious nature of the claims. Obscurity and ambiguity help shield these claims from scrutiny.

Underlying this specific theoretical agenda is the more general goal of raising the level of discussion of empirical issues in political philosophy. Ambiguous allusions to empirical claims should be unacceptable in any academic literature. Philosophers have the responsibility to be clear about what empirical claims they rely on and about the level of support they can offer for those claims. Their critics should not let them get away with the sloppy use of ambiguous allusions to empirical claims.

Once the need for each claim is clearly established, the book subjects each claim to rigorous empirical investigation using the best evidence available from anthropology, and then discusses the implications of those findings for contemporary theory. Some of the book’s central findings follow.

  1. The normative principles of appropriation and transfer much more easily support common or collective claims to property. Private property rights systems tend not to develop without state aggression against small-scale societies with better claims of a connection to “original appropriation” than people establishing individualist private property rights.
  2. The hunter-gatherer band economy is more consistent with negative freedom than any other form of socio-political organization known to anthropology. If freedom is an overriding value, everyone must become a nomadic hunter-gatherer. This finding implies both that the justification of any other system must rely at least partially on some other value such as opportunity and that aid to the disadvantaged is not necessarily freedom-reducing: it often counteracts freedom-reducing aspects of private property.
  3. Inequality is not natural nor inevitable nor in conflict with freedom. Contemporary egalitarian theory can benefit from the experience of small-scale societies that successfully maintain very high levels of political, social, and economic equality.

The book is not directly about Basic Income, but it will connect to the idea in the final chapter. We will argue that the mass of humanity lead lives of manufactured desperation. People are not naturally in a struggle to “find work” to ensure they have food, shelter, and clothing. They are artificially put in this situation by a stratified property rights system that is not necessary for human social organization and that most societies (from the earliest hunter-gatherers to more recent peasant farming systems) did not find it necessary to manufacture such desperation. Basic Income is one way to compensate people for the imposition of a stratified property system and to relieve them of desperation that has come with it.

We have full drafts of 8 of the books ten chapters, and we are positing them online at this link as they reach presentable form. We hope to have a full draft we can send to our publisher (Edinburgh University Press) within a few weeks or months.

Enzo grills Karl at the PPA+ conference, Amsterdam, 2019

Enzo grills Karl at the PPA+ conference, Amsterdam, 2019

UK: Call for Papers announced for Cambridge conference on intellectual history of basic income

UK: Call for Papers announced for Cambridge conference on intellectual history of basic income

“An Intellectual History of Basic Income”

University of Cambridge – January 14, 2019

A team of three University of Cambridge scholars have released a Call for Papers (CFP) for a conference on the history of the idea of basic income, to be held at the university on January 14, 2019.

Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) co-founder Philippe van Parijs is scheduled speak at the closing event. Other invited speakers are to be confirmed.

The conference, titled “An Intellectual History of Basic Income,” is being organized by Daniel Zamora (Department of Sociology), Peter Sloman (Department of Politics and International Studies), and Pedro Ramos Pinto (Faculty of History). Zamora is currently co-authoring a book (with Cambridge PhD candidate Anton Jäger) on the intellectual history of basic income with a focus on the US and continental Europe. Sloman is meanwhile writing a book on the history of the concept in the UK, and recently published an article in the Journal of Social Policy on the idea in the last century of British politics.

As described in the CFP, the interdisciplinary conference will investigate the “story of how the basic income proposal has achieved global prominence,” with a specific focus on “the contemporary history of basic income from the 1960s to the present,” including “how UBI proposals have been developed and received in different ideological and political contexts, and the ways in which the concept has been shaped by changing attitudes to welfare provision, income inequality, and the future of work.” It will also explore “how an idea that emerged as a response to a specific situation in industrialized countries in the 1960s and 70s has become an important tool for rethinking development policy in the global South,” alongside broader themes related to changing conceptions of global poverty.

The organizers invite abstracts for papers on the above themes (to be submitted by September 1, 2018). Selected authors will be invited to develop their conference papers into full chapters for an edited volume to be published with an academic press.  

For more details, including submission guidelines, see: https://inequalityandhistory.blogspot.com/2018/05/call-for-papers-intellectual-history-of.html.

Reviewed by Patrick Hoare.

Photo: Founding meeting of BIEN.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Zamora, Sloman, and Jäger are coauthoring a single book; this has been corrected.